As always, the major networks tried to out-technology each other on election night on Tuesday.   Some things worked, some didn’t, and some just didn’t need to happen.

CNN started the touchscreen bonanza with John King’s “Magic Wall,” a touchscreen developed by Perceptive Pixel.   On MSNBC, Chuck Todd uses a Microsoft Surface touchscreen.   One engineering difference between the two machines is that the Surface screen sits horizontally like a table and the Perceptive Pixel screen sits vertically like a big screen television.   Prior to election night, Todd’s Surface was linked to a large monitor so we could see what he was doing:

But on election night, he had a slightly more ambitious setup: a virtual set.   Instead of the Surface linked to a large monitor to see the results of Todd’s interactions with the Surface, it was linked to a giant virtual graphic amidst giant virtual columns.   There wasn’t actually anything behind Todd; this was a composite shot similar to a weather reporter standing in front of a green screen with a composited weather map and was MSNBC’s effort to out-perform the other networks:

The virtual set was an interesting idea, but there is, though, an inherent flaw with the Surface screen: we as viewers cannot see both the screen and the anchor at the same time.   This is where MSNBC’s setup fails.   With CNN’s screen, we see John King directly interacting with the screen and the results of the interactions; we can see things animate or change color when King touches them.

When King tells us to take a look at Chester county in Pennsylvania, we can see him touch the county, so we know which county it is and where it is on the map.   When Todd does the same thing with Miami-Dade county in Florida, we can only see the results of the interactions.   Todd highlights or points to a county on his screen, but when the camera is focused on the virtual screen, we can’t see what he’s pointing to and thus have a lack of correlation.   Without seeing what the anchor is doing, we’re left with a fullscreen graphic, so why even have the anchor on the set with the screen and interactions we can’t see?   Furthermore, in the first video, if we were to focus our attention on Todd, we would miss the results of his interactions on the large monitor.   If we’re watching Todd while he is talking to us, we miss seeing Nevada and Florida changing colors on the large monitor.   The director can try to compensate for this by giving us an overhead shot of Todd’s screen, but then we’re left with a pair of hands touching a screen instead of the whole anchor visibly and visually telling the story.   Not seeing Todd point to where or what he is talking about is akin to a weather reporter showing us a weather map with fronts, storms, and temperatures but not being on screen to point out what he is talking about.   Maybe not such a big deal if we didn’t see the weather reporter, but we’ve come to expect the visible instruction.   The Surface setup fails to take this expectation into account.   With CNN’s Perceptive Pixel screen, however, we can see the anchor’s direct interaction with the map making it superior to the Surface screen.

Like Chuck Todd, John King on CNN had some of his own virtual graphics.   For an explanation on the balance of power in the Senate, King highlighted key Senate races with a virtual Senate-floor layout:

What made this graphic good was the format.   The 3D virtual graphic on the looked great, and the tracking with the camera was well done.   Even though John King wasn’t in the camera shot physically showing us what he was talking about (like Chuck Todd), he didn’t need to be.   This particular graphic didn’t need the physical presence of the anchor to instruct viewers what he was talking about.

But not everything CNN did on election night was good.   In what was the ultimate bid to out-perform the other networks, CNN turned two interviewees into “holograms”:

Of course, though, they weren’t actually holograms; they were a series of green-screened images composited to look like a hologram.

From a technology standpoint, CNN wins the battle with their seemingly constant drive to advance on-screen broadcast technologies.   During the primaries, they were the first to unveil a highly interactive touchscreen that the other networks now try, unsuccessfully, to emulate.   What will be interesting to see is how this technology is used again and how it advances.   Like the virtual election maps, the “hologram” was a composite shot, so Wolf Blitzer couldn’t actually see Jessica Yellin.   Perhaps the next step is actually creating a true Star-Wars-like hologram with on-set video projection so the interviewer can physically see the hologrammed interviewee on the set?

From an information-delivery standpoint, though, the “hologram” was ridiculously unnecessary, and the developers behind it seemed to concede the presentation is more important than the information being presented.   What was the point of the “hologram”?   What did it achieve that a standard two-panel video graphic or a cutaway would not?   If she or were amidst the excitement of crowds, why not show the excitement?

Whatever the rationale behind some of this technology, the technology is here to stay.   And with the technology comes the wars between the networks to out-do each other.   I hope, though, that we in the broadcast graphics field can learn from what each other do and serve the viewers better by realizing information is more important than the presentation of it.   I fear, though, that we’ve permanently crossed the line, and it is more important to dazzle than it is to inform.